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The Jewish Bible’s stand on migrants is unambiguous

Jewish scripture teaches that failure to attend to the rights of resident aliens will result in national catastrophe
Ruth on the fields of Boaz by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (cropped) (Cc via Wikipedia)
Ruth on the fields of Boaz by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (cropped) (Cc via Wikipedia)

The oft-pronounced goal of the State of Israel is to be a country comprised of the highest democratic and Jewish values. Unfortunately, in the national discourse on what is to be done concerning the approximately 40,000 non-Jewish Africans who have migrated to Israel in recent years, Jewish values have been mentioned primarily in generalities. It behooves us to take a serious look at what the founding document of Jewish ethics – our Bible, the Tanakh – has to say on what has become an extremely divisive issue. Indeed, although non-Jewish migrants per se are not a major issue of discussion in the Tanakh, the Torah and the Prophets have a great deal to say about the stranger who dwells among us – the ger, the resident alien.

Unlike all other ancient Near Eastern law collections (in which only one very minor positive law appears about the resident alien – in the 18th Century BCE Mesopotamian city of Eshnunna), the Torah dedicates more than fifty verses to the resident alien, the vast majority of them positive. A brief summary follows:

  1. The resident aliens shall not be harmed or oppressed, or their rights ignored – Exodus 22:20; 23:9; Leviticus 19:33; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19. More than that, we are required to treat the resident alien with love, “As one of your citizens, the stranger who lives with you shall be to you, and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34)! In that, we are to imitate God, “And He loves the stranger to give him food and clothing. You, too, must love the stranger” (Deut. 10:18-19).
  2. Detailed provisions of food are provided for the poor and the resident alien during the harvest (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19-22), by the third-year tithe (Deut. 14:28-29), and by the natural growth of the Sabbatical year (Lev. 25:6), as well as the enjoyment of feasts (Deut. 16:11, 14; 26:2, 11).
  3. As all Israelites, the resident alien must rest on Shabbat (Exod. 20:10; 23:12; Deut. 5:14) and on Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29).
  4. A number of laws require the same obligations from resident aliens as from all Israelites: resident aliens must obey the Torah’s criminal law (Lev. 24:16-22); they must follow the same procedures for both voluntary sacrifices and those required to atone for a wrongdoing (Num. 15:14-16); nor can they eat leavened bread on the Passover or blood at any time (Exod. 12:19-20; Lev. 17:10-13). They even participate in the covenant ceremony before entering Canaan (Deut. 29:10).

Only two laws indicate a lower status for resident aliens: Lev. 25:48-55 takes pains to stress the significance of redeeming as soon as possible the impoverished Israelite who has been sold to the resident alien; and,Lev. 25:45-46, it is permissible for Israelites to buy resident aliens from other resident aliens as permanent slaves. Obviously, neither of these two laws is possible in a Jewish state since slavery was repudiated in Jewish society long ago.

However, it is important to pay attention to two phrases that are frequently repeated in the Torah: “for you were gerim (resident aliens) in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:20; 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19), which shows empathy for the resident alien, and “there shall be one law for you and the ger” (or, “like the citizen, the ger” – Exod. 12:47-48; Lev. 24:16, 22; Num. 9:14; 15:15, 29-30, etc.), which exemplifies legal equality between the Israelite and the resident alien.

The prophets echoed the Torah’s outcry against mistreatment of the resident alien (Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; see also Psalms 94:6; 146:9). The permission of Boaz to grant Ruth the migrant the right to glean in his field may well be based upon the commandments enabling the resident alien to glean from the harvest in Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; and Deut. 24:19.

The Biblical treatment of the ger resulted in many if not most resident aliens eventually converting to Judaism. Therefore, by the Hellenistic period the term ger had acquired a new meaning – the proselyte to Judaism. Today, they, as much as any other Jews, are our ancestors.

To summarize, it is clear from the Torah’s laws, as well as the Prophets and the Writings, that the stranger/resident alien was a member of the disadvantaged elements of society. He is grouped together with the poor, the widow and the orphan.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that resident aliens are not members of the people of Israel, they are entitled, by Divine fiat, to all the benefits given the poor, widow, and orphan. Beyond that, they are singled out to ensure that no harm befalls them, that they receive food and clothing, and that their rights of justice are protected. Special emphasis is placed on the stranger’s parity with the Israelite in both civil law and negative cultic commandments. Finally, the Torah and our prophets make clear that failure to attend to the rights and benefits of law-abiding resident aliens will result in national catastrophe, just as affirming their rights and benefits will lead to national success.

Too often the world follows an illegitimate double-standard in judging the State of Israel. But we have our own standards – our ethical values that have withstood for thousands of years the moral bankruptcy of our enemies. These Jewish values demand that we live up to the incomparable, revolutionary ethics of our Bible – which never mentions punishment or deportation of law-abiding resident aliens. In the current situation of the African “strangers” who live among us, it is past time that we treated them with the kindness and respect mandated by Jewish ethics.

Dr. Jeremiah Unterman is the academic advisor for a new series on the Hebrew Bible from Koren Publishers. He is a Resident Scholar at the Herzl Institute, has been a Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University and elsewhere, and was Director of the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools in North America. He is the author of Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics published last year by the Jewish Publication Society – from which the information in this article was taken.

About the Author
Jeremiah Unterman, a Resident Scholar at the Herzl Institute, has been a Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University and elsewhere, and was Director of the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools in North America. He is the author of "Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics," published in 2017 by the Jewish Publication Society.
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